Old House Journal (October 2017) – “Staying True” and “An Explosion of Colorful Tile”


La Jolla, CA


"Staying True" and "An Explosion of Colorful Tile"


Thomas Shess


October 2017


Larny Mack

Staying True

Sometimes we have to spend time away from our childhood home so that we can see it fresh. Susan Comden moved to Los Angeles for college, marriage and family, and a career in commercial real estate. Then she and her husband, Len, decided to remodel their lifestyle and buy a house in La Jolla, Susan’s hometown. La Jolla is one of the spectacular coastal California enclaves, akin to Monterey, Santa Barbara, and Malibu. “ I have always been partial to Spanish architecture,” Susan says, “especially all the wonderful seaside homes built in the 1920s and 1930s.” The couple met Linda Marrone, a local broker who specialized in historic home. “Linda steered is to this vintage 1929 Spanish Colonial Revival house in the Barber Tract, an older area of La Jolla.,” Susan says. The house was designated by architect/builder J.W. Gernandt of San Diego.

A prior owner had added a 180-spquare-foor enclosed sun porch to the rear of the 2,000-square-foot house. Besides that small addition, the house was original. “Love at first sight!” Susan remembers “the Spanish features were all here: stucco, recessed arched windows, wrought iron, hand-hewn beans, Spanish decorative tiles on the fireplace and stair risers, and quarter-sawn oak flooring.”

The old house needed some minor improvements to bring it to contemporary comfort. Initially, two small bedrooms upstairs shared a bath in the hall. But “we wanted a master bedroom with its own bath,” Susan says, “and we needed to up-date and, we hoped, expand the kitchen.” The original kitchen was very small, with the refrigerator kept on the service porch, where the old ice box had been.

Susan and Len also wanted to preserve the Spanish-style house for the future, by way of gaining a historic designation for it. So they needed a rare architect-someone who would understand the integrity of the period house, follow historical guidelines, and yet make functional improvements.

Their history-minded broker Linda Marrone recommended Ione Stiegler, FAIA, of IS Architecture. Her firm has renovated many historic houses in La Jolla and the San Diego area. With a penchant for historic preservation, “Ione had a reputation for sensitivity to period detail,” Susan says; “she’s a kindred spirit.”

Stiegler accepted the challenge. “We had wonderful design meeting and looked at lots of ‘inspirational’ photos,” says the architect. “It helped that Susan had remodeled buildings in the past, had a good grasp of the process, and knew what things she wanted to over see personally.”

Smiling, Susan Comden counters, “That’s nice of Ione to say, but the project, from our first handshake, was her baby.”

Right away, they faced their hurdle. Although this house is eight houses removed from the ocean, due to strict coastal regulations, at purchase the house property was held to the same review as an ocean front home. They had to apply for a Coastal Development permit, which often takes a lot of time to process. But no neighbors objected to the design, and the permit was granted quickly.

Adding just five feet between the original kitchen and existing garage, Stiegler and associates architect Joseph Reid reconfigured the space. “Most houses of the 1920s and ‘30s have kitchens we consider too small,” Stiegler says. “we live in our kitchens today.”

The clients and architects also decided to slightly expand the downstairs bath, add a separate laundry room, enlarge the upstairs master suite-adding a fireplace and master bath-and upgrade the sun room addition with beamed ceilings and arched doors to the patio.

“It was important to respect the original builder’s formal areas, living and dining rooms,” Stiegler says. “Too many owners today want to tear down all the walls to create an open living concept that is not in keeping with a historic house. For the expanded kitchen and informal dining area, we did design an open concept. We also minimally enlarged the opening between the living room and the rebuilt rear porch, for better flow.”

Most old homes don’t have an en suite master bed and bath. Stiegler used the old larger bedroom for a new master bath; with an addition over the kitchen, she added a master bedroom complete with a fireplace and an ocean-facing balcony.

Susan Comden says that no one realizes the house had an addition. It’s at the rear and seamless. “We completely hid the new massing behind the existing house,” Stiegler says. “In keeping with the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Preservation, we complemented but did not exactly copy the original; the eave lines are slightly different on the addition.” That becomes apparent when it’s noted that the original house has a deep, stuccoed cornice, while the addition has wood corbels. The renovation added only 400 square feet, bringing the total to 2,580. The home’s scale has not changed.

Even with an addition, the architects were able to get historic designation for the house. Its official name for the record, after the original owners, is the Harold and Maude Brown House. The homeowners have also received the Historic Preservation Award from the San Diego Historic Resources Board.


Page 24

Left: The comfortable 1929 house presents its original, modest street façade. A heavy stuccoed cornice marks original parts of the house. The balcony at far left is original.

Above: The 1929 roofing tile, still in service, was matched for the addition; Spanish red clay tile remains readily available.

Page 24-25

A Sun Porch Added Earlier – A narrow, 180-square-foot enclosed sun porch had been added by a previous owner. Upgraded with period details and large, arched doors, it now seamlessly connects the original living room to a private patio.

Details Mark Additions – Old and new sections merge, but the architects left hints; new additions have wood corbels rather than the heavy cornice. The bedroom balcony, custom ironwork by a local company, was patterned on the interior stair rail.

Page 26

Above – The Kitchen area was expanded. Over the range is a display of original Tropico tiles [in a field of generic tile] Tropoco [1920-23], in Glendale, was bought out by Gladding McBean, the ceramics firm founded in 1875.

The large living room opens to the sun porch, which was added by a previous owner to the rear of the house. Patio areas and the all beyond are new.

Page 27

Original Tile Set the Tone – The fireplace in the living room is studded with D&M tile; the stair risers [opposite] and these fireplace tiles are the only tile original to the 1929 house. New and vintage tiles have been added to kitchen, porch and master bedroom.

Page 28

The renovated kitchen and breakfast room are essentially in their original locations. A five-foot addition holds the laundry and a hall to the garage.

Above – In the improved sunroom addition, the bar backsplash is set with old Batchelder tiles collected by the homeowner. The wide arched opening leads to the living room.

Right – The new patio, like the adjacent sun porch, is laid with concrete tiles.

Below – The breakfast room us part of the kitchen. A five-foot addition allowed for a new laundry room.

Page 29

Added Master –  A new master suite was added over the original kitchen and new bumpout to connect to the garage. The authentic-looking fireplace is set with collected Batchelder tiles. In the master bath. Located in space the use to be the master bedroom, both the green backsplash and cap tiles, and the exotic design at the base of walls, are contemporary reproductions of California tile.


An Explosion of Colorful Tile

“The project really signs because of the Spanish-tile, tile, tile,” says architect Ione Stiegler. [See previous story.] “And for that, homeowner Susan Comden gets all of the credit. My firm has many vintage catalogs from Southern California tilemakers,’ Stiegler continues, “as well as books on the subject, so we were familiar with the tiles Susan was looking to re-create. But it was her tenacity on eBay and at antique stores, finding the historic tiles, which is truly awe-inspiring,’ The Spanish Colonial Revival house has some original tile, as well as vintage and reproduction tile added during renovation.

“California” tile, often in stylized patterns inspired by Islamic art, became an almost universal garniture of Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial Revival houses of the period 1915-1930s. Besides Hispano-Moresque design, stylized floral and aquatic themes-fish, waves-were popular in decorated tiles.

“Susan and Len’s project in an homage to California’s rich tradition of tile making,” says architect Stiegler. Illustrious makers included Catalina Pottery and Malibu Potteries, Batchelder tile in Pasadena, California Clay Products, and Gladding McBean.

Vintage tile, when you are able to find it, is priced at a premium, especially if you find it unset (still in the box) and in any quantity. That was the case involving a cache of unset Tropico Tile that Susan found at an antiques store in Pasadena.

The Tile types available in the 1920s and ‘30s have been revived. Today’s offerings include Spanish-influenced California tiles (Malibu and Catalina), textural Batchelder-tiles, and hand painted Talavera tile. Revived techniques –cuenca, cuerda seca, tubeline – are still used by small-batch artisanal studios as well as larger manufacturers.


Page 30

Above –  Back and front iron gates, probably dating to the 1920s, cane from a local antiques store. The tile inserts decorating the piers are original Tropico tiles collected by the homeowner, as “unset” units purchased in a box of two dozen.

Left – In the more public downstairs bathroom, tile is a stunning reproduction of a Malibu Potteries [1929-1932] design found in the 1929 Adamson House in Malibu.

Opposite – In the kitchen, antique tiles set into a generic field are Tropico [1920-23] tiles found by the homeowner.